A successful holiday show should balance familiarity and freshness. It should be able to evoke feelings of nostalgia, to take audiences back to happy childhood memories of this time of year. (That is the only possible explanation for the continued airings of that dreadful "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town" TV special from the 1970's.) And it should feel new enough that it doesn't seem like you've already seen it a hundred times over.
Blackfriars Theatre satisfies all those conditions with its holiday show for 2012, "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play." It tells the story immortalized in Frank Capra's classic 1946 film, which is still a Christmas staple that pulls solid ratings on broadcast TV and packs the Dryden for its annual screenings. But it does so with a twist. It's presented as a live radio play being broadcast from late 1940's/early 1950's New York City. A troupe of five actors and one stage manager bring to life all of the story's characters and scenes via voice acting and sound effects.
Radio plays have increasingly been popping up in local theaters; the Shakespeare Company has been presenting them for more than a year at MuCCC. They're a smart way to tell complicated stories that strip out the need for a huge cast, expensive sets, and difficult-to-achieve special effects. And indeed, the program for "Wonderful Life" notes that writer Joe Landry came to this format after he tried to do a traditional stage adaptation of the story but production costs "skyrocketed." Turning the show into a radio play makes for an engaging, briskly paced version of George Bailey's story, and infuses it with bits of whimsy and mid-century charm. Fans of the original film version will find much to like here, and those who have never seen it will have no problem following the story.
The show opens with stage manager Dave Baxter — who usually works behind the scenes at Blackfriars and other local theaters, but for this show remains on stage the whole time — gathering his actors for the broadcast on WBFR. The actors, played by local actors Brian Doran, Peter J. Doyle, Linda Loy, Jake Purcell, and Mary Tiballi, then gather around two microphones and, employing different voices, bring to life nearly two dozen different characters. Meanwhile Baxter mans a table full of foley devices to recall doors shutting, heels clicking, wind blowing, and the other familiar sounds of Bedford Falls.
The audience serves as a live studio audience for the show-within-a-show, so the actors know that we are there. Some of them, especially Tiballi, even interact a bit with the crowd during their "off" moments, a nice touch that reminds us that we're watching multiple levels of storytelling. That's also called to mind when pages from the script (the show is presented script-in-hand, which again makes sense given the format) go flying at a key moment, leaving the actors scrambling on stage, and one moment between Loy and Doyle that I'm relatively certain was a mistake but which both handled with humor and skill.
Dapper Jake Purcell is perfectly cast in the George Bailey role. His program bio mentions that he is a fan of the original film going back to childhood, and Jimmy Stewart's iconic delivery colors his portrayal — but it never feels like a rip-off or caricature. There's a real vulnerability in his performance, and his George remains sympathetic even when he's in full self-destructive meltdown mode.
Peter Doyle possesses a seemingly endless range of voices to call from, and the play even gives him a few occasions in which he engages in prolonged conversations with himself. His announcer voice has that beautiful lilt associated with classic radio.
Brian Doran is the most animated member of the cast, bringing quite a bit of physicality to his voiceover work. His voice for Clarence the Angel is borderline parody, but then again, so is the Clarence from the film.
As mentioned earlier, Tiballi is the actor who most plays up the live-studio-audience aspect of the show. That, coupled with the chemistry she enjoys with Purcell, makes sense: she's not just playing a sweet, mannered Bedford Falls housewife; she's playing an aspiring starlet, and it all works. Linda Loy also brings a little unspoken storyline to her actress character, who sneaks in at the absolute last second. Was that stray hair throughout the show intentional? I suspect it was.
Speaking of, the crisp costumes and period styling by director Jack Haldoupis will make you long for the days when people actually dressed so elegantly. The simple but effective set evokes New York City at Christmastime. If you can't get to the big city, taking in this show is the next-best option for a grown-up, yet sweet, Christmas celebration.